Looking up

A closer look finds reason for optimism in the condition of North Carolina’s economy.

September 22, 2012 

No matter what they may wind up saying about each other, Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Walter Dalton are reasonable and high-quality candidates for governor of North Carolina. And both have marched North Carolina’s still-struggling economy to the forefront of this campaign.

McCrory, former 14-year mayor of Charlotte, basically blames the Democrats for the slow recovery and believes tax cuts and less regulation on business are the keys. Dalton, the current lieutenant governor and a veteran legislator before that, likes more investment in education aimed at providing new and different businesses with the workforce they need as the long-term economic “fix.”

The former mayor certainly played a role in the boom of Charlotte during his tenure, and he can take some credit for that, just as he can claim some expertise on what business needs.

Yet in terms of helping to give the state that jolt, that push up the hill, that tow out of the ditch, his solutions already sound a little antiquated – not through any fault of his, but because Republicans now in charge of the legislature have already had two years to reduce taxes and winnow regulations.

Good ranking

And, the truth is, even before they loosened the government reins on business, those reins were pretty slack.

That’s one of the reasons North Carolina has consistently been ranked at or near the very top by business publications as an excellent place to do business, and it still is. It’s hard to imagine how much more the state could do for business in the way of making things easier, unless the governor and the Cabinet members volunteered to drive bulldozers or work the jackhammers.

Surely McCrory, who has worked well with Democrats and Republicans, wouldn’t reject Dalton’s emphasis on education as being critical. For one thing, history is on Dalton’s side.

Research Triangle Park was conceived more than 50 years ago by a combination of civic, business and university leaders. Today, it remains a model of public and private partnerships that take advantage of the presence of several research universities. RTP has made the universities stronger; the universities have made RTP stronger.

One of the keys

The late Terry Sanford – governor, senator, president of Duke University – had a vision for a community college system that also is model for others. Today, the community colleges contribute to the potential for North Carolina’s economic comeback by training workers who have lost their jobs to do new things.

That’s not to say McCrory’s ideas on lower taxes and regulation should be dismissed out of hand. But he’s coming at this from a background as a leader in the state’s largest city. And cities and urban counties tend to come back from economic slumps more quickly, Wake County being an example. Wake has added jobs to the point of actually having more jobs now than it had before the recession started, although the unemployment rate is higher.

The problems in rural areas, where family farming is no longer viable for many and where manufacturing continues to struggle, are more complex. Those areas have to find new industries.

And the job situation is complex statewide because of trends in global competition that have stripped the state of some opportunities while creating others. Meanwhile, the very things that have made North Carolina attractive to businesses have made it attractive to workers from elsewhere as a destination that also might bring a new job.

Thus, when people who have lost their jobs come here – perhaps having read about North Carolina being a top place to live, to educate their children, to retire – they’re adding to the unemployment rate (temporarily for many, no doubt).

No, the state hasn’t caught a wave of economic recovery. But there are positive signs, and those who advocate more investment in education and in educational institutions are following a formula that has worked spectacularly in the past.

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